I had the pleasure this week of joining the latest Paideia Centre Reading Group, run out of RTS. The groups meet (via Zoom or in person) to discuss historic Christian texts. Previously, I’ve joined groups for the Pastoral Rule of Gregory the Great and Augustine’s Confessions, and this time round we’re working through Augustine’s City of God. The groups are a blast, and I’d commend them to anybody interested in engaging historic Christian texts first hand with the help of others.
Augustine begins his work with a withering polemic which both defends Christianity and assults polytheism. Written in the wake of the sack of Rome in 410AD, the immediate cause of the City of God was the charge by some that Rome’s fall was punishment from the Roman gods for the empire’s embrace of Christianity. Augustine, in short, is having none of it, and comes out fighting (a rhetorical stance which has fallen by the wayside in contemporary evangelism and apologetics… but that’s another blog post).
To tritely summarise Augustine’s argument in the opening chapters: polytheism is evil and dumb, and this is obvious to anyone with half a brain. He gives a host of reasons why this is the case, many of which bear reflection so that we might usefully adapt them today in our preaching, discipleship, and evangelism.
One leapt out at me in particular this time round: the endless multiplication of Roman gods.
What Were You The God Of Again?
For Augustine, the need to keep adding gods to the pantheon is a clear argument against the coherence of polytheism. In Book III, he takes things all the way back to Numa Pompilius (753-673BC), the legendary second king of Rome, and the supposed successor to Romulus. As king of a fledgling people, Numa did a lot to establish the Roman religion, supposedly playing a key role in developing new Roman gods based on the older Greek ones.
However, this wasn’t enough for Rome. More gods were needed:
For all that, Rome disdained to content herself with the many religious institutions established by Pompilius. She had not as yet the chief temple of Jupiter; it was King Tarquin who constructed the Capitol. Aesculapius [the god of medicine] came from Epidaurus [i.e. Greece] to solicit custom in Rome, as as to practise his profession there and to enhance his reputation by ranking as the most accomplished physician in the world’s most famous city. The Mother of the Gods [Cybele] came from Pessinus [modern day Turkey].Book I.12 (trans. Henry Bettenson, Penguin Classics Edition)
This process goes on and on, with Rome accumulating gods-of-this and gods-of-that, in the hope of prosperity and protection. Augustine summarises where they get to:
Rome had collected for her protection far too many gods, summoning them, as it were, at a given signal by the immense volume of smoke of the sacrifices. By establishing for them a supply of temples, altars, sacrifices, and priests she was bound to offend the true supreme God, to whom alone these honours are rightly due. She had greater happiness when she lived with a smaller number. But it seemed that she needed a larger supply when she grew greater, as a larger ship needs a larger crew. I suppose she felt no confidence that those few gods, under whom she had enjoyed a better life (though storing up for herself a worse future), would suffice to support her increasing grandeur.Book I.12
This, to Augustine, is plain evidence of the stupidity and incoherence of polytheism. The constant addition of new gods simply displays a lack of confidence in current ones. These gods were allocated increasingly specific, small-time roles (e.g. you have different gods who oversee the sowing, germination, growth, and harvest of crops, rather than just one god of agriculture); this being the case, how much of a god are they really? To paraphrase Syndrome from The Incredibles: “when everyone’s a deity, no-one will be”, and everyone’s left asking (to quote Hella from Thor: Ragnarok), “what were you the god of again?”
By taking aim at polytheism like this, Augustine (I think) puts his finger on a nerve for the Romans. He’s writing in 410AD – but Greek philosophers centuries earlier had begun to realise (through their own natural reason), that polytheism made no sense. For any god to truly be God, they must be God alone. The philosophers concluded that “oneness” must necessarily be better than multiplicty, and so God must be one, not many. This tension between the one God of the philosophers and the many gods of the state religion was, in short, an unresolved tension for the pagan Romans in Augustine’s day, and I think he knows that as he needles them here.
But let’s consider Augustine’s main point: what does it say about a culture when it cannot stop multiplying its gods? Why is this a criticism worth making?
Too Many Gods
Augustine picks out “the immense volume of smoke of the sacrifices” – as if by sending up as much smoke as possible, covering all their religious bases, the Romans hoped to appease and gain from whichever gods may be up there. This is Acts 17 in action: in every way very religious, with an altar to even the unknown god.
The process is, for Augustine, one founded on insecurity. The Romans fear that, somewhere, there broods on a cloud an unappeased god, whose wrath may eventually be felt.
There’s a lot of mileage in applying Augustine’s anti-polytheistic arguments to our own day (and perhaps I’ll write about it some more). Some leaps are obvious – we can talk easily about the idols of our own day: materialism, self-determination, comfort etc.
Yet are there ways in which our culture is constantly multiplying our gods?
The endless extension of the LGBTQIA+ initials is, perhaps, a good example. Most readers will, I think, remember when the initials only extended to LGBT (perhaps some even recall when it was just LGB). But over (very) recent years, the initials have proliferated. A new initial is added, but then another group feels excluded (or, perhaps, our culture-makers worry that someone might feel excluded) and so another initial is added. People once thought that the “Q” for queer would cover all the bases, but this was deemed inadequate by the I’s and the A’s. Presumably, the “+” is now as problematic as the Q was a while back.
The same thing happens with the LGBTQ movement’s associated flags. Once, we had the rainbow flag. Now, we have multiple pride flags for different subcultures. We even have the Progress Pride flag – a kind of omni-minorities flag, meant to include more sexual subcultures than ever before, as well as people of colour in general, people of colour who are marginalised within the LGBTQ community (by other elements of the flag), intersex people, and people with HIV/AIDs. Of course, there are plenty of people who are unhappy with the Progress Pride flag already, too.
Why have the initials and the flag stripes multiplied so much and so quickly? “Greater awareness and inclusivity” would be one answer. Perhaps. But Augustine likened the endless smoke of Roman sacrifices to a signal to the gods, summoning them to gain their approval, and it is hard not to see the endless proliferation of sexual initials as the same process. We insert the initials and fly the flags to appease the wrath of those whom they represent.
This comparison may supposedly be inapt because the gods were (thought to be) powerful, whereas the whole point of anybody in the LGBTQ community is that they are not. It would take many separate blog posts to deal with that objection adequately, but suffice to say this objection just doesn’t hold water in 2021. If you think people who take issue with any aspect of the LGBTQ project are power-brokers, you just aren’t watching the news. There are few things more to be feared in public life today than the friendship-ending, career-destroying scorn of a sexual minority.
Why does the LGBTQ initialism keep growing? Why do the colours on the Progress Pride flag keep multiplying? It’s for the same reason that the Roman gods kept multiplying: our culture is insecure, with no confidence that the few gods we had before will suffice to support us in the future. We fear the wrath and witheld favour of anyone excluded by the initials and the flag, just as the Romans feared any unknown God. We embraced the LGB, and congratulated ourselves. But then we began to wonder if it was enough, and so along came the the T. And likewise the, the I, the A, the +, the whole sexual alphabet soup. A culture with confidence in itself could possibly say, at some point, “this far, and no further!” But the West has no confidence in itself any longer. It fears the unknown god.
This comparison between Roman polytheism and our contemporary sexual/gender confusion could yield some fruitful avenues in our engagement with non-Christians – though only those who’ve become as exhausted by the LGBTQ agenda as some Romans did of their divine pantheon. We’re in a fragile moment, where lots of people are questioning whether the worldview that has dominated the Western world since WW2 is really as air-tight as we thought it was. People who were happy to sign up to the LGB a few decades ago, and were initially happy to embrace the T, are now not so sure – especially since the T’s seem to be at loggerheads with the LGB’s a lot right now.
As we’ve said, some people will chalk the lengthening initials up to the march of progress. And yet the rapidity with which they’ve lengthened has left many people disoriented. It may be a chance for Christians to ask people whether we should have really started defining ourselves by our sexual identities in such a way in the first place. If the sexual identity playbook can be drastically rewritten every five minutes, how good a playbook was it anyway? And how dated and offensive will its current format look in five, ten, twenty years time? And if new gods become old overnight, were they ever really gods to begin with?
In contrast, the Christian God, offers a settled “oneness” to our ethical life, and an assurance in Christ that his wrath has been appeased. Whilst living ethically varies somewhat according to our different contexts, the reality of one supreme God means we don’t have to reinvent the foundational ethical wheel two or three times each decade in order to appease his shifting, capricious will. And when we do stumble ethically, the answer is the same in one age as it is in another: repent and believe; go, and sin no more.